In his long, green-tinted dreadlocks, forest-green high tops, T-shirt emblazoned with "Captain Quackenbush's Espresso Cafe" and scruffy goatee, Casey Cunneen feels right at home on the California Institute of the Arts campus.
But at USC, student James C. Mathis III feels his best roaming the campus in a plaid Armani sweater, blue jeans and Polo lace-up dress shoes.
The typical student uniform at Los Angeles-area colleges remains as it has been for years--shorts, jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. But a recent stroll through a handful of campuses turned up definite distinctions in style: Cal Arts is funky; USC is dressier than UCLA, where the look is collegiate and laid back, and Los Angeles City College is a study in cultural diversity.
"I would feel insecure wearing some of the things I like if I went to USC," says purplish-blue-haired Lesley Fergusun, a 19-year-old Cal Arts freshman majoring in art.
Her favorite outfit consists of a loose, thigh-length burgundy silk pajama top over jeans, black fishnet knee-highs and thick black platform shoes. Silver rings circle almost every finger.
"Here, it's easier to wear what I want--this school is artistic and liberal," she says.
Cunneen, an 18-year-old freshman majoring in photography, is used to offbeat dressing--and at Cal Arts in Valencia, where students lug portfolio cases, cameras and theater props across lawns decorated with mammoth wire sculptures, he fits in.
"It's how I feel most comfortable," says Cunneen, who was forced by school officials to cover his dreadlocks with a wig during his senior year at a Catholic prep school in Los Angeles. "As far as the dreads, now that I have them, I wouldn't have it any other way--they're no maintenance."
As unconventional as some of the Cal Arts get-ups may seem, Anita Bonnell, the school's director of public affairs for 23 years, says they're tame compared to those in the past.
"In the early '70s, students dressed much more outrageously," she says. "People weren't as serious then about their art-making. Now, with high tuition and the economy, students are much more serious-minded and focused. But there's still definitely a look at Cal Arts which is different from four-year colleges elsewhere."
Will Guy, in beige shorts, a white T-shirt, a soft black felt hat and tiny round black-rimmed spectacles, says clothes have gotten less extravagant in recent years.
"Kids don't have that much money anymore to spend on an image," says Guy, 24, who is completing his master's degree in fine arts. "Still, when people first come here, they have a place to dress how they want--students feel comfortable wearing underwear and a straw hat to class."
That ensemble might not go over as well at USC, where the women tend to favor platform shoes, leather backpacks, and shorts or sun dresses and the men sport Gap plaids, khaki and baseball caps. But a lot of students still find ways to stand out.
"I wear Guess, Polo and Armani," says Mathis, 18, a sophomore from New York City. "Some days, I like to dress up with nice slacks and an Oscar de la Renta tie. Other days, I like to put on my jeans and Guess denim shirt and relax."
Ray Delgado, in denim shorts, a plaid flannel shirt and black loafers that he bought on a trip to Spain, says he puts some thought into what he wears. "At other campuses, people wear sweats," says Delgado, 19, a junior majoring in journalism and political science. "I don't want to look like a college slob who goes to work in sweats and a T-shirt."
Kelly Pleska, a 23-year-old sophomore who is studying to be a nurse, sometimes wears platform shoes and a sun dress but also dresses down in Converse high-tops with shorts and a T.
"I guess I dress how everyone else does, but it's also in my own way," Pleska says, adding that she shops at thrift shops as well as Nordstrom.
Down the road at Los Angeles City College, a commuter school with students from more than 33 countries, the look is totally unpredictable, says Gloria Bohanon, associate dean of student activities.
"People dress up, down, in oversize clothes, layers, the '60s and '70s look that has been in style, T-shirts, large boots, platform shoes, colored hair," she says.
Rashidi Donkor, 27, a sophomore majoring in psychology, wears a loose-fitting dashiki shirt decorated with what look like huge, exploding yellow, blue and black sunflowers and a matching hat, along with a large black beaded ankh, an Egyptian symbol for the key of life.
"I don't get caught up in fads," he says. "Sometimes I wear Western clothes, but as I got older and got a grasp of African history and culture, I gravitated to these clothes. And there's such a diversity on campus with the different types of dress, I feel in place here."